Making the Church Safe for All

On Saturday I spent the day with Parish Safeguarding Reps from across the Diocese of Exeter.  I spoke to them about my faith and I talked about it being the anchor of my soul.  In God I have, in the words of the psalmist, ‘found my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.  It is in God whom I take refuge’ (Psalm18:2).  As the body of Christ we are called to reflect the nature of Christ, the nature of God and I believe that as churches, part of the body of Christ we are called to be places of safety, places in which people can take refuge.  This is why I believe that safeguarding is at the heart of the gospel.

Something inside me weeps every time I hear when as a result of the abuse of power in the church someone has been hurt and accounts are coming all too often. Rosie Harper in her blog on Via Media news talks about the apparent shift in the current political climate that “people have begun to talk about their experiences of being harassed, abused or criminally attacked, with an openness that wasn’t acceptable even a few months ago”. She makes the point, fairly, that whistleblowers still lose their jobs, and women can be mercilessly interrogated in court to search out a way of framing their assault as ‘they were asking for it’. This has to change.

You may have seen BBC One’s Have I got News For You on Friday night where it took Jo Brand – the only woman on the show – to say why those relentless comments putting women down as well as sexual harassment itself are not acceptable. We have to change our underlying environment so it is clear that sexual abuse, harassment and such comments are simply not acceptable.

The former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones was asked about this issue in reference to his new Hillsborough report on how public institutions should treat the relatives of people killed in tragedies. He said that there needs to be a culture change in all our institutions and spoke of how the Hillsborough families felt ‘dehumanised’ when they challenged people in authority. He is absolutely right that we need to sit down and ask what does happen when an individual complains and what should happen? This is an urgent question for the Church.

Abuse almost always occurs as a result of the imbalance of power. When Dame Moira Gibb published earlier this year An Abuse of Power (the report into the serious sexual wrong doing of Peter Ball, a bishop of the Church of England) she spoke of the abuse of power. Dame Moira pointed to the Church having made significant progress in recent years in understanding abuse and in its safe guarding practice. Whilst recognizing we have some way to go, she highlighted the fact that trust accorded to clergy and bishops can bring an exceptional level of power.  Different kinds of power constellate around clergy: the power of ritual leadership, the power of being entrusted with intimate secrets, the power of having the strongest voice both in making the community’s critical decisions and in shaping culture and attitudes. (The Gospel of Sexual Abuse and the Church The Faith and Order Commission) Clergy don’t always acknowledge such power but we have to be accountable for how we use it – that can only be by following the pattern of Christ doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. Looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).

Jayne Ozanne’s interview on Channel 4, disclosing the abuse she suffered, made difficult listening but she clearly identified why the culture in the church must change.  We have to encourage people to speak up and we have to say that any abuse of power is wrong – but where do people who want to speak out go to find places of safety? Progress has been made in developing professional safe guarding teams who are accessible across the church but we need to ask ourselves what more should we do?  Do we need a national helpline or access to other support services to supplement what we already have?

The Church needs to own a safe culture; we have come a long way where increasingly people understand their responsibility and I would not want to lose this, which will be the risk if we hand over safeguarding to an independent body. However I think we should search ourselves to see if there is more we can do to ensure independent monitoring. We are already committed to implementing the Elliott Review recommendations which propose that safeguarding decisions as they occur across the Church, should be subject to review by an independent body. This review was an important milestone in the Church’s Safeguarding journey.

The Church is made up of individuals and each one of us needs to commit to following the pattern of Christ, a pattern of the incarnation, the pattern of humility and look to the interests of others.  We need to ensure that the church is not only safe, but is a place where everyone can flourish.


About Sarah Mullally

If you wanted a blog run by an experienced blogger look elsewhere - I am a beginner. I am a mum, Bishop, Dame and poor potter - welcome.
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11 Responses to Making the Church Safe for All

  1. Christopher Jones says:

    A prayerful and truthful person pouring out what they understand to be the right way to go forward is far more useful and thought provoking than a professional blogger saying one thing and believing another. We all have a reponsibility to look after every being on this earth in the same way as we would wish to be looked after and treated ourselves. “Love they neighbour, as yourself” is too often overlooked. Thank you for you thoughts that remind us on how we should all behave towards others.

  2. Linda Jenner says:

    This is good but is only half the story about the abuse of power. What about spiritual abuse, hidden hoops church members are coerced into jumping through, how members are sidelined and not allowed to contribute when scripture clearly tells us we each have a unique contribution to make? Why can a man do and say things that exclude people within the C of E without any explanation apart from ” I’m in charge and what I say goes “? How can it be right that a vicar can refuse to allow a member of many years to attend a so called public act of worship simply because they do not live in the parish? How can a man make false accusations about a church member and the hierarchy of the diocese do nothing except close ranks? In a secular workplace there are far higher standards of behaviour than is seen within today’s church. When the structure is more important than the person in need of care and inclusion then indeed there is a great sickness.

  3. Nita Stallard says:

    Not only do we, as the body of Christ , have to provide safety for each and everyone in our churches, we should also be aware that the freedom of speech is seriously curtailed. How does one fight the willful damage to our outreach, our social lives, our buildings, by the very person who is supposed to be our spiritual leader?? Who do we turn to?

  4. siphothomson says:

    Reblogged this on John Thomson, Bishop of Selby, Diocese of York and commented:
    Excellent and timely. Culture must change!

  5. John Carter says:

    Thank you Bishop Sarah. I sense behind Linda’s comments above the frustration I have heard many times from church members – the abuse of power by clergy through spiritual blackmail, the ‘hoops’ that can presented as ‘God’s word’ for our church etc. Knowledge is power so three years at theological college can be three years of accruing power over the congregation, even if we, the clergy, may not be aware we are abusing this ‘hidden knowledge’. It’s said that many of ‘our people’ want this strong leadership, and we can certainly see it’s abuse in Pentecostal churches – but in the CofE we have plenty of examples of our own.

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  7. Anne Foreman says:

    Bishop Sarah, thank you for this thoughtful, accurate and timely response. It may not be the whole story Linda, but it is a pretty emphatic acknowledgment of the necessity for change. I am open to more thinking about handing over safeguarding to an independent body; at the moment I think to do so wouldn’t lessen the need and requirement for people to understand their responsibility for promoting a safe culture – so a risk worth taking. For too long the Church has been monitoring itself.
    Anne Foreman

  8. Patricia Lyons says:

    Linda Jenner sums up my feelings exactly. I ache from jumping through hoops. Lay people are being made to submit to red tape because of the tardy, over- reactions of the church hierarchy to the misdemeanours of some of their number. I do know that lay people have also committed offences.

  9. Sue Clegg says:

    I understand the need and welcome national standards. I understand and welcome the need for review and accountability, but where the rubber hits the road, is in the local expression in the Parish where an appointed lay Safeguarding officer stands between the national and Diocesan church policies and recommendations, their own clergy, PCC and a parishioner survivor who seeks support and help to redress a wrong. A lone figure, without power, trying to uphold both law and relationship is a thankless task. It is good to hear a Bishop taking time to be with and I trust listen to those “on the ground”

  10. Andrea Middleton says:

    Thank you Bishop Sarah. I think that much unwitting damage is done when individuals at all levels are unaware of the power they hold, or of the dynamics of groups/relationships. Something we need to address…..

  11. Anne says:

    Your idea about a national helpline, Bp Sarah is an excellent one. In 2007 I was in Australia, presenting at a conference on bullying in churches. I had a meeting with the then Archdeacon of Melbourne, Graham Sells, where there had been a lot of publicity about bullying in the church. The Diocese published 3 excellent articles by Jane Still about bullying in their Diocesan Journal/paper, The Melbourne Anglican. They had a helpline even then which was very helpful indeed, in particular for the targets of abuse and family members, who are, of course, powerless when it comes to dealing with bullying or harassment, so a helpline for them was invaluable. The way in which targets of abuse are responded to when they first disclose is vital. I heard from somebody who disclosed sexual abuse to the local DSA: “he was so cold”. Needing to hear the facts is one thing, but at all times we must respond with warmth and love. It is very, very difficult to disclose abuse, which is why so many people take years to be able to do it. It is partly, of course, our society which wants to believe in the just world hypotheses (Lerner 1982), Good things happen to Good people. Therefore Bad things happen to Bad people. I will never forget talking to a group of clergy about bullying in the church. They all happened to be men, which may be significant. One of them said, “If somebody is bullied it is their own fault. You can see it in their eyes.” My response was: That is a very interesting comment. What would you say to a woman who has been raped? “Yes, he said, Yes! It is their own fault, you can see it in their eyes.” That was the point at which I realised that some (clergy) people have a very low level of self awareness and things which I took for granted needed to be explained. So yes please, Bishop Sarah,. Get a national helpline instituted, up and running. The most sensible suggestion I have heard for a long time!

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